Thursday, June 29, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power - But Watch Out For Your Job

I've been stewing about this for awhile, trying to decide whether to write about it or not. I was going to, and then it seemed like it had become old news, so I thought I probably wouldn't do it. But it is still bugging me, so I suppose I'm going to have to go ahead and get it out of my system.

It all started with a June 4, 2006 opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune. It was written by Brigham Young University philosophy instructor Jeffrey Nielsen. Spurred by a direction from the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormons) for members of the church to call their U.S. Senators and urge them to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman and therefore outlaw gay marriage, Nielsen felt constrained to write and submit an essay explaining why he found the amendment, and the call by the church to support it, "troubling", as Nielsen described it. It was a moderate and well-reasoned piece of writing.

Nielsen's piece publicly disagreed with church leaders. Since the LDS church owns BYU, Nielsen soon found himself dismissed from his teaching job there. A university spokesperson said, as quoted in a June 14 story in the Deseret News (also a church-owned concern) that Nielsen was let go because his op-ed piece "publicly contracicted and opposed an official statement by the First Presidency." Nielsen countered, according to a June 14 article on his dismissal in the Salt Lake Tribune, that it was not his intent to attack any religious or theological claims of the church, but simply to comment on a moral issue.

And why is this significant? Employees get let go all the time for saying or doing things their employers don't like. Legally speaking, BYU certainly has its collective butt covered six ways from Sunday on their decision to let Nielsen go. That isn't my concern here, although it puts BYU's claim that it allows its faculty academic freedom. No. My concern here is instead the school's - and the church's - utter disregard for the principle that being able to voice an opinion on a topic about which well-meaning individuals might disagree without fearing job loss is - or should be - a basic human right.

A church is entitled to believe and to teach pretty much whatever they want. That is settled by the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. And if people wish to live by even the most draconian strictures of one of thsoe religions, well, I suppose that is their right as well, although I seem to recall that it is against the law to bind someone to a contract that deprives them of their constitutional rights. That's what makes those master/slave contracts illegal.

However, there is another part of the First Amendment - the free speech clasue. While there is legal opinion in existence that those guarantees do not bind private institutions, it seems kind of disingenuous to me for a group to insist on its First Amendment right to worship as they wish and then to refuse to allow their adherents the rights conferred in another clause of the same article in the Bill of Rights. That is exactly what the LDS church seems to be doing here by letting Nielsen go for simply stating a dissenting opinion.

It isn't that any of this surprises me much. The Mormons put a huge premium on obedience and do not brook any public dissent. There have been a number of disfellowshipments and excommunications in years past, as well as firings from BYU, after individuals have expressed opinions contrary to that of the First Presidency of the church. These disciplinary actions have not always been explained as reactions to dissent, and they have not been limited to BYU faculty. Former Australian Bishop (congregational leader) Simon Southerton was excommunicated in 2005, ostensibly for adultery. However, he and his wife had not been active in the church for seven years at that time and from what I understand his behavior had long been known. I suspect that it was not simple coincidence that Southerton had published in 2004 and vocally promoted his book, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church (Signature Books) in 2004. This book discusses the fact that DNA evidence does not support Mormon claims about the peopling of the Western Hemisphere. Similarly Grant Palmer, a long-time employee of the Church Educational System, was disfellowshiped for writing a book, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, which calls into question the official version of church history.

No. The Mormon hierarchy does not like dissent at all. It wants obedience from its members above all else, and it does not want outsiders interpreting the church and its doctrines and history. That is why it issued such a detailed and emphatic dissent to Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which I've written about here before. That is also why the church's historical archives are largely closed to anyone except those known to be sympathetic to the church and its teachings.

What the church wants more than anything else, and this gets to the crux of what is bugging me so much that I needed to get this out of my system, is unquestioning obedience from its members. And it wants everyone to be associated with the church. That's why they send out all those missionaries. This insistence on obedience is illustrated in a talk by one Mormon official and published on the church's official website after appearing in one of its magazines, the Ensign, in July 2005. The talk, by Elder Robert C. Oaks of the Presidency of the Seventy, is titled "Believe All Things". The gist of the talk is that it is important to belive all the things the church teaches because that belief will leed to obedience to the leadership of the church.

Oaks's talk idealizes what he calls "childlike submissiveness", saying "...we are instructed to be like children, who are willing to be taught and then to act without first demanding full knowledge." In other words, Mormons are expected to do whatever their leaders tell them to do without question and without regard to their own well-being. To illustrate this, Oaks holds out the example set in the Bible by Mary, the motehr of Jesus. He says that she accepted the assignment of bearing a child as an unmarried woman without "reservation or restraint" even thought her culture would demand that she be stoned to death for being an unwed mother.

That's nice. What he is saying here seems to be, do whatever the church tells you to do without question even if it means your very life, which you should sacrifice gladly. Even the US military, a noticeably obedience-based institution, expects its members to evaluate and refuse and illegal order. But not Mormons. No, they are supposed to just bow their heads and say yes (which I understand is something that is required in secret temple rituals, but since I've never been to the temple except to do dunkin' for the dead, I wouldn't know firsthand) to whatever they are asked.

This sort of obedience is not an abstract principle in the church, either. Members, especially temple Mormons who have pledged to give everything to the church, are expected to never, ever say no to any request from their superiors in the church. And one of the cute little things that local leaders like to do from time to time is to go into a meeting of, for instance, the Relief Society (the women's organization) and announce that Salt Lake City (where the chruch is headquartered) has instituted the United Order, just to see how many members will go along with the story without question and how many will raise objections. The United Order is a sort of communalism in which everyone's belognings - including homes - are pooled and then redistributed according to need. If that plan were ever actually to be activated, all the members would be expected to go along with it without a word of dissent.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I was raised to Question Authority. No surprise, then, that I never made a very good Mormon. It honestly frightens me that in 2005 anyone could have given a talk, with as straight a face as church leaders always give their talks, instructing the membership of the church that they are supposed practice "childlike submissiveness" whenever the leadership tells them to do something. The thing that is even more frightening is that a certain proportion of the membership will, indeed, bow their heads and say yes, and do anything these people ask them to do. This sort of authoritarianism is just pernicious, and those who promote it, leaders and followers alike, should be ashamed of themselves.


Mrs. B. Roth said...

I know I should resist commenting, but I can't. Arg.

I, too, was and am very troubled about the dismissal of the BYU professor (as an almost alumnus of said University). Though, as you said the school is covered contractually to do this (EACH professor signs a contract, part states they will not publically disagree with church doctrine - publically being the key). Probably would not have been my choice, but if they let it slide, where is the cut off. People send their kids (and adults themselves choose to go) to BYU for specific reasons.

But please, don't throw out to the world wide web that all mormons are mindless children taught to blindly obey (although if that has been your experience and remains your opinion, well, bob's your uncle).

We are taught to obey God and that God's word comes through the church leadership, yup, that's right. We are not told to just obey, we are taught to get confimation of callings or requests for ourselves, through prayer. If we have a hard time accepting whatever comes down from the general authorities, we are counseled to study it out, pray about it, find out for ourselves. Furthermore, everything, every position in the church is voluntary and unpaid. FYI, from personal experience - LOTS of people turn down callings and requests. I have yet to know anyone be excommunicated or disfellowshipped (well, one person disfellowshipped, that was due to admitted adultry, though and she has since returned to full fellowship).

It wasn't some mormon church leader who suggested we be like children. I'm sure you're aware of the New Testament verse in Matthew 18:3-4. It's attributed to Jesus Christ. So it shouldn't be strange that the leader of any Christian church might refer to humbling oneself as a child, especially today.

Yeah, Jesus was kind of big on acting on faith without having a full knowledge. IT works for some, others need proof, then and now.

To my knowledge, the leaders of the church aren't asking people to do anything immoral or illegal. Adults today, even mormons, are well informed and make intelligent decisions for themselves based on whatever inner convictions they have. Just because you and I may come to a different conclusion does not make me a blind child, nor you a wise thinker.

I know your post was heart felt, honestly dipicting what you believe. I'm a Mormon and some of what you said is not completely accurate. Allow people to see another side and draw their own conclusion.

lma said...

Mrs. B Roth...You say I should "allow other people to see another side and draw their own conclusions." I actually thought that was what I was doing. I'm just one blogger, whose readership is maybe four or five people if I'm lucky. The LDS church has a whole public relations operation and an army of missionaries carrying their message. I think they've got me a little outgunned in the message promotion department.

From my point of view, one of the problems the LDS church has is that they expect anyone who has not had a good experience in the church, who has not gotten the same answer to years of prayerful study as the church leads investigators and members to expect, to never breathe a word of it. And, to be sure, it isn't just the Mormon church that has that attitude. It isn't even just churches in general. Governments and businesses also often would rather never hear the voices of those who would express dissenting views of the message they promote. I just don't think it is reasonable for any institution to expect to never be contradicted. I think that sort of attempt to manipulate information availability is, indeed, stepping much to close to authoritarianism.

I do have to say that I don't think I said that all Mormons are mindless children. I think what the comments of Elder Oaks show is that this is what the leadership would like to be the case. Not that this isn't understandable. It's like when George W. Bush said something to the effect that his job would be much easier if the country were a dictatorship.

It has been my experience as both a leader and a follower that some leaders tend to not want to have to deal with dissent. That is why a certain type of leader will surround him or herself with "yes-men" and "yes-women". But my experience in leadership, which has been fairly extensive but mostly outside the Mormon world, is that discussion is healthy and that questioning the leaders of any organization keeps them honest and accountable.

And, yes, I do know where the guidance to be as little children comes from. I tutored a university-level Biblical Studies class for two semesters during my upper-division work, and Matthew was the gospel emphasized in that course. I just have a different idea of what things were meant to be covered under "childlike obedience" than the General Authorities seem to. I'm not against rules, but there are good rules (stopping at stop signs; not killing others) and there are those rules that are promulgated mainly for the sake of seeing who will obey them without question and who will not. My favorite example of that was a film instructor I had once who decreed that all papers must be fastened with paper clips, and papers bound with a staple would be returned ungraded. I can think of several rules handed down by the General Authorities are of the latter rather than the former kind.

I do wish you would have been more detailed about which parts of my post are "not completely accurate". It was pointed out to me that the correct term is "United Order" rather than "United Plan". I have made that correction in my post, and I apologize for the error. If you were referring to my comments about my understanding of what goes on in the temple, I believe I mentioned that I have never been through the temple myself and that I was just reporting my understanding of what goes on there. If I was not clear enough about that, let me reiterate it here. But let me also say that I believe my sources are reliable.

Other than those two details, I stand by the accuracy of my assertions, while admitting that I am a fallible human being.

Mark said...

Hi Ima,

I'm a convert to the LDS church and joined exactly because of a strong sense of who was in charge. Yes, the faith does like do present the image that everyone marches to the same beat. But that is true at least to some degree for any organization. And you'll find if you talk to average members that mormons don't adhere to "the most draconian strictures." The professor in question was in a position of power. And with that power came the resposibility to teach in harmony with the church's doctrine. The full-time missionaries have the same responsibility, and one would be pulled from the field if he started saying doctrine wasn't doctrine. The LDS faith is not a democracy but church leaders do listen. I've been a voice of ethical dissent (see since I sent "My Testimony" to the president of my stake. Perhaps I'm just being ignored, but I have not to date been excommunicated as you suggest I might.

On a different note do you accept anything as a final authority. Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God? For that matter do you believe in God at all? Before you start criticising the faith of others please let them know where your faith sits.

lma said...

Mark...I went over and read your testimony, and I have a couple of things to say about that. But first, let me address the second set of issues you brought up.

I don't honestly think that belief or non-belief in God is especially relevant to this discussion. My concern is rather the way in which some (by no means all) religious institutions and individuals project their own needs and wants onto their conception of God and then proceed to try to make people who don't share their views feel guilty for believing differntly, as well as the way in which some such insititutions feel free to discipline members of their group for expressing personal dissent on issues that are not theolgoical in nature. But, since you asked...

I hope there is some power in the universe that is just and kind and loving. I haven't seen much evidence of that, personally. But, in all honesty, I believe that if that power does exist, that thing that human beings tend to call God exists, he/she/it is likely so "other", so different from us that we could not begin to comprehend that entity's wants, needs, and motives. I suppose this belief makes me, by actual definition, an agnostic, at least at this point in time. I am certainly not an athiest, as I think that to believe there is no God is as much an act of faith as believing there is a God.

If others see reason to believe, I'm fine with that. I just don't appreciate the way that some believers in some denominations (and this is certanly not limited to Mormons), among them the hierarchy of the LDS church, presumes to claim they "know" God and then proceed to limit what they claim to be an entity with what they would say are virtually unlimited powers by claiming to know what God would or wouldn't do, and why. Then they further proceed to claim that theirs is the only way to know God, passing judgment on those who will not accept their beliefs.

I imagine that since I am no longer in the LDS church, it goes without saying that I do not accept Mormon claims. I do believe that if God does exist and wants all people to have a uniform concept of deity, God is perfectly capable of revealing his/her/its wishes to each individual personally and clearly, without the need for the mediation of religious insitutions. In other words, I'm not interested in abdicating my right to making my own mind up about God to someone who has set themselves up as an "authority".

I don't expect anyone to accept what I believe, just because I say it. My feeling is that everyone's path is different. Where I have a problem is when people feel free to tell me that my path is wrong, but that I am not allowed to question or criticize their path. Criticize my ideas all you want, but I reserve the right to do the same, no matter how much my concept of deity differs from yours.

So...your testimony. You sent that to the Stake President? Interesting. You've got guts; I'll give you that.

You write, "I believe God is not bound in a particular form..." I've heard it said that you can believe anything you want to believe in the LDS church as long as you don't try to teach things that are contrary to doctrine. Your statement is clearly not doctrinal. Anyway, I assume that the church still teaches that God is a being of flesh and bone, as it did when I was active in the church. This, despite the fact that Gordon Hinckley has been quoted as saying that he "doesn't know that we still teach" that "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become."

It probably depends on your particular Stake President as to whether he will call you in or say anything to you about that passage in your testimony. However, I wouldn't be at all surprised if you are being quietly watched, just to make sure that you do not say anything like that in a sacrament meeting talk, or teach anything like that in a class. Because if you begin to do that, I would be very surprised if there were no repercussions.

Likewise, what seems to be your endorsement in your testimony of scriptures beyond the standards works might be problematic within the church. While the church has taught from time to time that theres is some truth in all religions, I would be very surprised if something wasn't said if you began to quote other religions' scriptures in talks or lessons. This is especially so since I understand that there is guidance now that only approved church sources are to be used in the preparation of talks and lessons.

A few other points about your comments...If you will re-read the appropriate section of my post, you will see that I did not say that the LDS church imposes "the most draconian strictures." I was speaking generally - "a church - saying that I believe that if individuals wish to live by a religion - any religion - that imposes strict discipline, that is their right to do so. I don't, however, believe that such institutions have the right to try to impose their beliefs and practices regarding non-theological issues on others on the battlefield, at the ballot box, or in the halls of Congress.

Which brings us to the Nielsen case. You wrote that "The professor in question was in a position of power. And with that power came the responsiblity to teach in harmony with the church's doctrine." Well, no. He wasn't teaching classes in Mormon doctrine. If he had been, then you might be able to make such an argument. But as I understand it Nielsen was teaching philosophy classes. That means it was his responsibility to teach about the different philosophies of men. But that doesn't even come into the equation as far as I'm concerned. He wasn't dismissed for anything he was teaching in a class. Instead, he was dismissed from his position for making a statement, as a private citizen and on his own time, about a non-theological issue, in an op-ed piece. It was a political and social issue on which the church hierarchy was trying to influence the Senate through asking the membership to contact their elected representatives.

Nielsen was not operating in his capacity as a representative of the church in any way, which is by the way not true for the leaders of the church, who were using their authority to try to influence the Senate, through the members of the church. That he was identified as an instructor at BYU was the work of the editors at the Tribune, although I understand that Nielsen has taken responsibility for that. I don't think it was necessary for him to do so. All op-ed pieces have their authors identified as to what they do or the position they hold. At least he was open about who he was. I'd be willing to bet that most of those church members who did contact their Senators concerning the same-sex marriage issue did not mention that they were doing so because their church leaders asked them to do so.

When all is said and done, I suppose we will have to agree to disagree.

Mark said...

I asked about your belief in God because I've found that atheists often want to set themselves up as a final authority on weighty subjects. I avoid discussion with such people because there is no common ground for debate. However agnosticism is not something I shun. I was agnostic myself for a long time (thus the ten years of soul searching that lead to "My Testimony"). I can not fault you for searching, and I hope that you can find a community that better reflects your personal beliefs. Have you studied with the Bahias? Just a thought.

You wrote "they further proceed to claim that theirs is the only way to know God, passing judgment on those who will not accept their beliefs." I find this a totally unfair representation of the doctrine of the LDS church. The Articles of Faith state and I strongly support that "(11) We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men {and women} the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." Now you may have found some members who don't practice this principle well, but they aren't then representing the virtues that the LDS church has to teach. I'm generally very interested in people who have left the church voluntarily because (11) is a perfect defense for any belief that does not attack the General Authorities. So, I see the LDS faith as very 'universal' in much the same way the primitive Christian church embraced even those that hated it. So if you dont mind sharing why you left I would be sympathetic to reading it.

The other statement in your latest post that I disagree with was that "Nielsen was not operating in his capacity as a representative of the church in any way." Neilsen was hired to act as an LDS role model. That is a least one of the reasons BYU was paying him. They put him in the spotlight, and he failed to live up to their expectations. There are ways to dissent in the church without publically attacking the authority of those who are called to set doctrine. He could have talked to his bishop of stake president about his concerns first. I'm proof of that. Now I'll grant that I'll probably never be asked to teach a class and I must guard my words when declaring what I believe. But, I'm not in a position to set or challenge doctrine, and I know that. Any member acts as a representative for the church to some degree when they address non-members. Neilsen knew or at least should have known this.

Finally, I thank you for reading "My Testimony." The more 'light' I can shine on it the better I understand how to magnify my priesthood. If I can be of any help in your spiritual quests let me know 'cause I'm happy to help.

lma said...

Mark...Here's the thing about the eleventh Article of Faith: It says all that stuff that sounds so good, but nowhere does it say that those other ways of worship are a way to the highest degrees of glory in the LDS conception of the afterlife, which is after all the goal of all Mormons, or at least all the Mormons I know. As far as I was always taught in the church, the only way to do that is to be a good, full-tithe-paying, temple-attending and temple-married Mormon.

In teaching a Relief Society lesson once, not long before I left the church, I brought up that Article of Faith in a way that promoted acceptance of the belief systems of others. The comments I got from the women in the class were very telling. The consensus was that Mormons have to let people worship in the ways they wish, but only until the missionareis can convert them, because those other ways of worship just aren't correct.

If you really read the eleventh Article of Faith, it teaches tolerance but it does not teach acceptance. Some Mormons do take it as promoting acceptance, and more power to them. But many more of them, at least that I've known personally, take freedom of worship to be a necessary evil until the whole world is Mormon. And I've heard a lot of them pass very serious judgement on those who are not interested in converting because they are happy with their own belief systems.

As far as the Nielsen issue I said before, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree. Be that as it may, I am happy that you have taken the time to read my posts and comment on them.